The Little Professor has a fascinating post discussing William St. Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, which argues that “copyright laws have exerted considerable force on the literary canon”:

For the purposes of St. Clair’s project, perhaps the most significant epoch in the history of British intellectual property laws stretches from 1774-1808. St. Clair dubs this the “copyright window”: perpetual copyright was officially disallowed, prompting a sudden spill of older texts onto the market. (The window closes again with a series of laws passed between 1808 and 1842, each lengthening the copyright period.) Once the first window “opened,” publishers began marketing large-scale anthologies of the English (or British) “classics.” In fact, the Scots, operating under a differents set of copyright laws, jumped the gun in 1773 with The British Poets—soon followed by the various anthologies published by John Bell… For St. Clair, this window produces what he calls the “old canon,” which would persist well into the Victorian period [basically, Samuel Butler, Chaucer, Collins, Cowper, Dryden, Falconer, Gay, Goldsmith, Gray, Milton, Pope, Shakespeare, Spenser, Thomson, and Young; no Drayton, Herrick, Lovelace, Marvell, or Herbert, and no women writers]…
St. Clair uses the phenomenon of the “old canon” to make several points of interest to literary historians. First, he argues that publishers formed and replicated the old canon without much regard at all to critical considerations; to the contrary, the old canon consisted, by and large, of what was out of copyright and easily available. Second, he shows that there was a “generation gap” separating readers in different economic strata. Less well-off readers during the Romantic period had access to the old canon, but not to the now-canonical “Romantics.”…
St. Clair further contributes a number of case studies, some of which correct academic received wisdom. Thus, he shows that below a certain economic range, post-Shakespearean readers didn’t read Shakespeare—because for years there was no affordable Shakespeare for them to read. Along the same lines, far from being a best-seller, Frankenstein was unavailable for much of the nineteenth century; many Romantic and Victorian readers knew the story only from its multitudinous stage adaptations… Ditto the Vindication of the Rights of Woman—most references to Wollstonecraft were made by people who had never seen, nor were likely to be able to see, the rare surviving editions of her work.

She has much more to say, all of it interesting; I urge you not to miss her blackly ironic final paragraph.
Via Avva, who also links to her post on a jaw-dropping book ad:

Many of us have probably read parts of Homer’s epic The Iliad. Some may even have slogged through its heavy prose to the end. Some of you may even have understood what you were reading. For the rest of us there is this new reworking of The Iliad. Gone are the pesky line breaks, intrusive gods, and archaic phrasing. It’s the same timeless story, but it now reads like an entirely new book.

Its heavy prose? Excuse me, I’m going to go shoot myself now.


  1. This is a very interesting take on the canon of English literature — driven by cost more than anything else!

  2. When I was young T.S. Eliot’s estate refused to let his poetry be published in cheap paperback anthologies. That actually made me less admiring of his work, because I think that it was his idea.

  3. Mr Emerson, the Estate of T.S. Eliot refuses to let his poetry be published almost anywhere. For example, after Stravinsky set “The Dove descending…” from Four Quartets, the estate denied the request of a classical record label to include the text along with the recording.
    And yet, for some reason Mrs Valerie Eliot allowed the monostrosity that is Cats go forward. Just makes no sense.

  4. michael farris says

    “And yet, for some reason Mrs Valerie Eliot allowed the monostrosity that is Cats go forward. Just makes no sense.”
    I assume you’re either being sarcastic or just touchingly naive. I’m sure that the Cats people ponied up a _lot_ more cold hard than a classical music label could/would. Never attribute to artistic principles that which can be explained by simple greed.

  5. Well, to be fair, it is a sad fact that many English speakers do encounter the Iliad as a work of prose. The Penguin Classics translation by Hammond is used in a lot of curricula, especially when the teacher is scared to challenge the students with page after page of verse. I assume Baricco’s target audience does not consist of classics scholars, or, for that matter, even people who love poetry.

  6. Right, but it’s hard to reconcile that with the “pesky line breaks” they talk about soon afterwards.

  7. Well quite. I grew up on E.V. Rieu’s prose translations in Penguin, as did millions of others. If you wanted verse you had Pope and Dryden: none of your Fitzgerald or Fagles back then. Then I hit the bit about line breaks and WTF!?

  8. I was actually being a bit tongue in cheek. Much like Monsieur Jourdain, it seems probable that the author of the ad copy doesn’t really know what “prose” means. I’m sure if I had time today to google it I could find some other examples of people using “prose” as a synonym for “writing that is complex, hard to read”. OK, I quickly googled one example from a tech blog – “I find Apple’s prose difficult, and sometimes misleading. I suggest using a different source when possible.” Isn’t that writer using “prose” to stress the complexity of the writing? Otherwise it seems an odd choice of words. Is Apple in the habit of writing tech manuals that aren’t prose?

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